by Elliott Stonecipher
Before I finished reading the John Maginnis and Jeremy Alford scoop, I could almost hear the plea of the kid in the Shoeless Joe Jackson baseball story. As the great Chicago White Sox player’s alleged involvement in conspiring to fix the 1919 World Series was being investigated, the unnamed kid intercepted Joe as he left his grand jury appearance: “Say it ain’t so, Joe! It ain’t true is it?” Likewise, surely – surely – the Board of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry would not replace retiring President Dan Juneau with Governor Jindal’s former chief of staff, Stephen Waguespack. Like the kid, a part of me refused to believe it. I waited a few days for more detail and better news, for some peg to hang my someone-tell-me-it’s-not-true hat on. These many days later, I remain peg-less, and am told to expect the formal announcement this week.
Admittedly, I am not without bias on this subject. I have deep admiration for LABI founder Ed Steimel, and have had for “his” LABI as well, for many years. Having started a successful business from scratch many years ago, I am generally a “business and industry” man, my late father’s labor union membership notwithstanding. That LABI has spoken for business and industry for so long means that it, too, has more times than not spoken for my interests. Notwithstanding any of that, I comment here as an outsider. Given what I do and how I do it, I am not a member of LABI or any other such group, just as I am registered to vote as an “Other,” that is, as an official non-partisan.
My point in this writing is direct: I do not believe Stephen Waguespack as the #1 at LABI is good for the organization, or for Louisiana. I am reliably told that LABI’s long selection process considered many, many candidates. That their now-assumed last man standing is so simpatico with the ways and means of our governor, and will have been chosen in a process heavily influenced by the governor, leaves me more than merely disappointed. This news for Louisiana feels like, well, just too much; like a haymaker good government and ethics simply cannot shake off after six years of unrelenting rabbit and kidney punches. This appointment may well mean that, to Louisiana’s detriment, a key piece of Governor Jindal’s machinery will continue to influence state government long after he returns to the political promised land on the Potomac.
I do not know Mr. Waguespack personally. Though I had no idea he was qualified to serve in such an important position, that matter is solely LABI’s business. I would be less than honest if I did not point out, however, that according to the Maginnis / Alford original report, Waguespack did not even bother to tell his current employer, a prominent law firm, that he was interviewing for the LABI job. Such lapses are at the heart of my negative reaction to this news: Waguespack has been a full-fledged doer in the past six years of what I believe is an often less than ethical, just, or honorable Jindal administration. More directly to my point, I believe he is therefore an opposite of Ed Steimel, the man who made LABI the brand for public policy reform and governmental ethics advocacy for nearly forty years.
It is my learned opinion and belief that Jindal, Waguespack, and other closest members of their team have taken a toll on Louisiana. When elected late in 2007, our governor was armed with a mandate for governmental reform we cannot fairly expect to see again for many years. As a dramatic and additional measure of the state’s support for him, voters also handed him a newly rebuilt legislature with a strong majority of members willing to follow him to the places his campaign “promises” promised. Instead, owing to his powerful ambition to be president, he and his team hijacked our hope, for selfish reasons. We the people of Louisiana are, I believe, little more to Jindal than a focus group for his presidential campaign talking points. Even worse, his ethics reform that wasn’t, and his attack on critical elements of government transparency, will likely prove very difficult to reverse. Decades of work in those critical areas, by many people, has thus been lost.
I am more than merely taken aback that LABI’s leadership does not see and understand these points. I believe Ed Steimel does, however, and that matters. A brief review of LABI’s history reveals how and why.
LABI’S RARE HERITAGE … FORGOTTEN?
Imagine a time, recent enough that my days in state government coincided, when two titans of public policy, government and politics rose far above all other unelected leaders of Louisiana. Add to that superb happenstance the fact that these men fought on either side of a single and hugely important issue: how much would organized labor be allowed to control the rights of Louisiana’s rank-and-file working men and women. Victor Bussie, President of the AFL-CIO was Mr. Organized Labor, and Ed Steimel, head of the fledgling LABI, was Mr. Too Much Organized Labor. Theirs, to our benefit, was a public policy and political shoot-out which catapulted the infant LABI into what was soon its current, albeit now seemingly endangered, primary role in our state’s formulation of public policy formulation.
In today’s political world, the decades-long piece of Louisiana history at issue is difficult to describe, in the same way we now struggle to explain to those who were not there what it was like when our public schools were led as much by deeply involved and committed parents as by teachers and principals. In 1976, these two men led a grand ideological and political battle – ugly and dangerous at times – to decide if Louisiana would again, and likely permanently, become a Right To Work state.
In 1952, Anti-Long Louisiana business interests had battled to elect true reform Governor Robert Kennon of Webster Parish. Kennon’s leadership and initial legislative support quickly put Louisiana in the Right To Work column of American states, providing its workers a statutory guarantee that they might work anywhere, without having to join a union and pay it dues. Such struck at the heart and soul of Louisiana populism, giving business and industry a win-of-wins – which would not last. In 1956, Earl K. Long was again elected governor, along with a different legislature more befitting his persona and populist base, and he and organized labor quickly killed Right To Work. The leader of that movement was the AFL-CIO’s new and young President, Shreveport firefighter Victor Bussie.
Through the gubernatorial terms of Earl Long, Jimmie Davis, John McKeithen and the first term of Edwin Edwards, organized labor in Louisiana was to politics what the New York Yankees are to baseball. Rabid fans backed big labor to the hilt, and the courthouse crowd in most of Louisiana’s 64 parishes served as labor’s farm team. Journeyman state officials were labor’s bat boys, glad to be on the field even if the players and front office men had no clue past name and number who they were. Like the Yankees, Louisianans loved ’em or hated ’em, and there were plenty of the latter, no matter that most kept such feelings to themselves.
Ed Steimel’s role as organized labor’s public policy opposite began in 1951. A native of Pocahontas, Arkansas, and educated a journalist, Steimel then joined the staff of Louisiana’s infant engine of non-partisan reform thinking, the Public Affairs Research Council, known as PAR. The group was formed a year before Steimel’s employment, and by 1954 he was its Executive Director, a position he held until he left in 1975. Steimel became to many, this writer included, Louisiana’s personification of ethics and “good government.” As Steimel labored those two decades at PAR, he worked for and on issues ranging from public corruption to the need to move Louisiana away from its dependence on energy taxes and toward a mix of sales, income and property taxes. It seemed to me as I began work in state government in 1976 that public policy debates in our state were just so much jawboning until Ed Steimel, speaking for PAR, then LABI, let the public know where he and they stood. When I worked in the education department and took point in the fight for a state law requiring teachers to pass the National Teachers Examination before certification, I came to fully understand the gravitas of LABI and PAR support.
In 1975, Steimel decided it was time to stop calling public policy balls and strikes, and pick up a ball, glove and bat. LABI’s was the uniform he wanted to wear. Few general managers, though, start their bunch from scratch as Steimel had to do. I asked Louisiana public policy watchdog C. B. Forgotston, who was working for the legislature at the time, to explain how LABI started a year before its Right To Work victory in the 1976 legislature. Forgotston’s response perfectly typifies the Ed Steimel so many of us so strongly respected, “Everybody else thought it was too early, and that Right To Work would take years, but Ed wanted to do it ‘now.'” And he did. In one year. In the oppressive heat of the second week of July, with more than 10,000 union members angrily protesting on the Capitol steps, Steimel and legislative majorities again passed Right To Work laws. Loudly pro-labor, but mainly very smart, Governor Edwin Edwards signed the legislation into law, even as he reiterated his “opposition” to it.
Louisiana’s public policy battle of the century had been dramatically won by Ed Steimel and his legislative and business and industry supporters. The correctness of his argument has since been repeatedly proven, though Victor Bussie and organized labor could never acknowledge it. More jobs and better wages for workers resulted, precisely as Steimel predicted. The beginning of a long and painful decline in the power of organized labor began in that 1976 defeat, and no public policy issue since has so influenced Louisiana. It was accomplished mainly by a man who was 100% committed to structural reform – in a state with leaders who even yet have virtually no appetite for it.
“Ed Steimel’s LABI,” even when so capably led for years by Dan Juneau, has, perhaps until now, never lost its way. Its public policy leadership has never waned, as we saw earlier this year when Governor Jindal’s “sales tax swap” died an inglorious death as LABI stepped forward to oppose it. Jindal then threw in the towel, it seemed, but given the news of Waguespack’s ascendancy, the governor obviously decided to respond to LABI’s kill-shot by applying a favorite of his rules: co-opt any who cannot be beaten or intimidated into submission.
It is important that Ed Steimel’s support of Bobby Jindal for Governor in 2007 was short-lived. He withdrew that support in 2008 when Jindal could not make up his mind about whether or not to back the legislature’s plan to give itself a massive pay raise. As the media then reported, Steimel characterized Jindal as “a major disappointment.” I read those reports, and given my direct experience with the Jindal team in their “ethics gold standard” ruse, it was clear that Ed Steimel knew what I, too, had learned. Huge percentages of Louisianans have since learned it too.
Thus, sixty-two years after Ed Steimel came to Louisiana to work for PAR, huge majorities of Louisianans yet again agree with him on a matter of importance to our state. So why would LABI’s selection committee be set on replacing Dan Juneau with a true devotee of Jindal’s oft-times unjust and intimidating way of governing? The answer comes from a good friend of mine who knows this subject very well: my friend believes that many of LABI’s board members not only do not know Ed Steimel, an active and among us 90-year-old, but likely do not even understand his history within the organization.
If this thing happens, the LABI brand, to many of us, will be stained, and its steady hand on our good government tiller will be unsteady, at best. We will rightfully question who is actually behind what it says and does. LABI’s commitment to reform and good governance will be questioned, if not outright doubted and attacked. I understand that something in this deal is perceived by some Board members as good for LABI, but experience tells me such is likely a miscalculation.
It is my hope, expressed with all due respect, that LABI will act in honor of its rare and impressive heritage.
Elliott Stonecipher’s reports and commentaries are written strictly in the public interest, with no compensation of any kind solicited or accepted. Appropriate credit to Mr. Stonecipher in the unedited sharing of his work is requested and appreciated.